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#RSFlashback: Bonnie Raitt Creates a Ballad for the Ages with ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’

It has spawned covers ranging from Boyz II Men to Priyanka Chopra

Amit Vaidya Nov 19, 2021

Bonnie Raitt. Photo: Marina Chavez

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30 years ago this week, Bonnie Raitt’s now classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me” made its first appearance on the charts. The song not only became one of Raitt’s most well-recognized hits, it also has gone on to be rated as one of the greatest, with countless artists giving their own spin on the beautiful ballad over the years.

Often deemed one of the saddest songs of all time, Raitt recorded the ballad in one take. Understated vocally yet with an extreme ache, we hear her beautifully capture the emotions behind the lyrics in the most intimate of ways. The track was written by Nashville’s Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, better known for their work in country music songwriting circles at the time. Reid had composed a melody that he shared with Shamblin on the piano and over the course of nearly six months, they put the track together. The song was being considered for Linda Ronstadt and Better Midler along with Bonnie Raitt, all three of whom had experienced a sort of late boom renaissance in their music careers towards the end of the Eighties/early Nineties.

The song ended up in Raitt’s hands who included the track on her 1991 album Luck Of The Draw. Raitt co-produced the track with Don Was and got Bruce Hornsby to provide the instantly recognizable piano accompaniment. Raitt has been quoted as saying the song is one of the most challenging songs to perform live but it has become synonymous with the artist. In a 2002 NPR interview she explained “’I Can’t Make You Love Me’ is no picnic. I love that song, so does the audience. So it’s almost a sacred moment when you share that, that depth of pain with your audience. Because they get really quiet, and I have to summon … some other place in order to honor that space.”

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“I Can’t Make You Love Me” became a Top 20 hit for Raitt on Top 40 radio, and reached the Top 10 on Adult Contemporary. It’s a shame that the song didn’t get the due it deserved upon initial release during Awards season. Raitt’s album came out in June and her first single from the set, “Something To Talk About,” became a big hit. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” actually released after the eligibility period for the Grammys, though Raitt did perform the song masterfully with Hornsby accompanying her that year at the awards.

However, in the thirty years that have passed, the song has become a mainstay classic on AC radio and beyond the charts, the song consistently features as one of the best ever on all-time lists, currently ranking #372 on the most updated Rolling Stone Greatest Songs Of All Time compilation.

The song has been so popular that it has attracted innumerable covers. George Michael was one of the first to take a stab at the tearjerker. He loved to perform his version live, as featured in his MTV Unplugged performance. He released his studio version as a B-side to his single “Older.” The song ended up becoming a Top 3 hit in his native U.K.

Beyond the Brit, R&B supergroup Boyz II Men tried their hands on the song in 2007 when they released their second covers album. The R&B interpretation was a modest hit for the band. The song seemingly then seemed to resurface a few years later again when Bon Iver did his version of the song which was actually a medley of the hit with Raitt’s own Grammy-winning classic “Nick Of Time.”

The adoration then continued with Adele covering the song for her first live album, Live At The Royal Albert Hall in 2011. Despite never releasing the song as a single, the song still charted on the UK Singles Chart reaching the Top 40. The singer had already performed her live cover at the iTunes Festival in London where she was quoted as saying it was one of her favorite songs. “It makes me really, really happy and really, really devastated and depressed at the same time. It makes me think of my fondest and best times in my life, and it makes me think of the worst as well, and combined, probably is a recipe for disaster, but I do love this song. It’s just fucking stunning.” In many ways, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is the music template Adele has used for the duration of her career so it seemed perfect she covered the song.

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Most recently, Priyanka Chopra (remember she tried her hand at singing for a minute?) released her version of the classic, albeit in an uptempo electronic/dance style. Her version became a minor hit on the Dance charts but most critics and listeners panned her interpretation as taking away the heart, the soul and the depth of the original. It is worth noting  that the single was her final release as a pop recording artist. Most noteworthy about her cover is probably that the music video co-starred This Is Us actor Milo Ventimiglia. 

If nothing else, over the years and with countless interpretations, it is clear that the song has resonated with listeners of every age, demographic and music styling. Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” may have charted 30 years ago this week but with that beautiful melody and those timeless lyrics – the song shows no signs of losing its place on the ugly-cry song mantle.

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